The Cardinals at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston, MA - 02/21/09
As a huge music fan, I probably don't need to tell you that the hours leading up to seeing a favorite band or artist live often fills me with nervous anticipation. In life, I am never more impatient than the minutes that seem like hours between an opening act I hardly care about and the headliner that is about to melt off my face.
As a huge Ryan Adams fan, I probably need to tell you that, leading up to seeing him, my (good) nervous anticipation of seeing an other-worldly performance is often superseded by my (bad) nervous anticipation of seeing a well-publicized and, unfortunately, far-too-frequent Ryan Adams meltdown that will cause me to leave the venue poorer in the wallet and poorer in my profound admiration for him as a songwriter and performer.
I've seen Ryan and his band, the Cardinals, on two occasions. The first was back in 2005 right before the ever-prolific Adams released his trio of brilliant discs, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and 29. He went on stage absurdly late and then insisted on carrying on conversations with heckling audience members and constantly complaining about the lights. Even his sound man, whom we were standing next to, was commenting aloud about his behavior. The band actually played really well that night, and despite Adams' frequent distractions, he didn't have a spazz out. However, because he went on so late (on a Tuesday, I might add), it meant that he didn't finish out his set until well after 1:00 AM, which resulted in a number of audience members, including yours truly, to miss the end of the set.
The next time was in 2007 and, despite feeling very under-the-weather, the temperamental and tempestuous Adams managed to pull together another excellent-sounding show. The only bite of the night came afterwards. I'm admittedly a giant nerd and, at any given time, I have this mental list of five artists I'd like to meet. Ryan is definitely and forever on that list. So, after the show, we waited around outside the bus with a few other people wanting to say hi to him. We actually ended up carrying on a lengthy conversation with Ryan's tour manager who assured us that Ryan would be out of the bus shortly and would say hi. Over an hour went by and the tour manager left us an emerged from the bus with Ryan and the two walked right past our small group without saying a word.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those entitled fans who feels like every artist owes it to their fans to bend over backwards for them. These people are human too and entitled to their bad moods, off nights, etc. It's just that it would have been nice to glad-hand for five minutes. This experience did not diminish the performance at all and, honestly, I ended up far more ripshit at the tour manager (who knew we were waiting and then ignored us) than anyone else, but to say it didn't slightly dampen the experience at all would be disingenuous.
My Ryan live experiences have been walks in the park compared to others. He always seemed to have this volatility that meant that you were either going to see a fun, raucous, affable Adams or a pissy, sloppy, antagonistic Adams who was the slightest incendiary spark, caused by slightly out of tune guitar, lights that are too bright, or a heckler demanding to hear "Summer of '69", away from him leaving the stage in a huff and the house lights coming on.
This past year, Ryan and the Cardinals released Cardinology, a very solid offering that showcases his expert and flexible songwriting in the genres of alt-country, beautiful ballads, and bratty pop. When the tour to support the disc was announced, I felt like pressing my luck (I was due for a bad show), but Ticketmaster's crappy seat selection prevented me from pulling the trigger on getting tickets. I resigned myself to not seeing Ryan this time around and, considering my last experience was a good one (with great seats, I might add), I was OK with that.
In the meantime, Adams posted a rambling, self-pitying entry on his blog effectively announcing his retirement from music at the end of the tour for a variety of reasons: he's losing his hearing at a dangerously rapid pace, he's tired of being viewed as a "joke", he doesn't want to hold back his ever-talented band, and he wants to focus on a book writing career. The post has since been removed, but questions about Adams' sincerity about all that still linger. Adams is an enigma from head to toe. And no one quite knows what's up with him.
According to some press, Adams has apparently gotten clean and sober and, since the blog posting, has gotten engaged to cutie Mandy Moore (yes, THAT Mandy Moore), so the possibility of him pulling himself together increased. When tickets to the sold out show became available late last week, I swallowed hard, dropped $43/per, and prayed we were going to see a good show. Besides, he can be a big asshole sometimes, but damn, Sam, he's one hell of songwriter.
If you've made it this far in this post, congratulations, because the review is about to start.
We arrived at the venue about 20 minutes before the 8:00 start time to notice the marquee advertise "The Cardinals". Odd, since most of the time, the collective band is referred to as "Ryan Adams & The Cardinals", but I didn't really care how they were advertised, as long as they kicked ass. I had my reservations, but was cautiously optimistic.
We settled into our seats (about 13 rows from the stage) and saw the stage set-up, including two fluorescent lights in the shape of the rose from the Cold Roses album surrounding a huge, truly bombastic and hilarious replica of the image of the cover of Cardinology. It could have been made out of cardboard or tin or whatever, but it was overtly heavy metal (as were the concert shirts with lettering using the Iron Maiden font) and something you would expect to see on Judas Priest's stage. It was perfect.
Around 8:30, the lights went down and the band came out. From right-to-left were steel guitar player Jon Graboff, guitarist Neal Casal, bass player Chris Feinstein, Ryan's long-time drummer Brad Pemberton, and then the man himself.
Adams walked on stage and politely acknowledged the crowd. And I don't know what it was about that one minute before they launched into that first song, but any trepidation and anxiety of the unknown I had was gone. Just completely gone. There was this vibe on-stage that instantly told me this show was going to be something special. The first song confirmed it.
Usually an encore, "I See Monsters" is one of my favorite Ryan tunes and as he fiddled with his guitar upon taking the stage, I could vaguely make out the opening guitar lick and then it hit me that they were opening the show with it. My jaw dropped, since this seems like a song that needs to be led up to, not one to kick off a show. But I stood, attentive, excited to hear it nonetheless.
Another thing to add at this point is that Ryan and the Cardinals are so fucking good that their live versions almost always blow away the studio versions of the songs. And that is the frustrating dichotomy of Adams. He's an outstanding performer and guitarist. He's almost savant-like in his ability to write a song. And when I say a "song", I mean a SONG. A good one. Anyone can write a song. I can write a fucking song. But I marvel at Adams' ability to produce both quality and quantity on a consistent basis. And, on top of it all, the Cardinals are an amazing, amazing band. They should slay every single night. Back to the song thing for a second, music critics will argue this point, but Ryan has like a handful of bad songs. Out of hundreds. And he knows what the bad ones are and he doesn't play them. Critics will argue that his bad songs are more numerous. And that's why music critics can kiss my ass.
OK, so "I See Monsters". Just an incredible, incredible song and performance. If you are interested in it, watch this video and watch it all the way to the end. Note that this is not from the show I saw, but from a different performance.
Impressive? The version on Saturday night even kicked the ever-loving shit out of this video version which kicks the ever-loving shit out of almost everything. It was a near-religious experience for me and quickly became one of the best live songs of any artist I have ever seen.
The set continued with a few songs from Cardinology, "Everybody Knows" and "Fix It", which translated so well live that I gained a much greater appreciation for the record as a whole after the show.
During these songs, Ryan experienced some minor guitar trouble, but it amounted to nothing more than a quick look offstage and he was undeterred. This was definitely the Ryan Adams that everyone loves watching. His mood was great, he seemed happy, he was joking with the band, and it translated into a performance that won't easily be forgotten and for all the right reasons.
At this point, I would be horribly remiss if I didn't mention the Cardinals collectively and individually as a band, since the show was billed as such. But if this show was any indication of what The Cardinals are, they are easily among the best live performers (along with Wilco, the Raconteurs, and My Morning Jacket) out there today. The glue that held a lot of it together was the very underrated Neal Casal. He played lead guitar on about 75% of the tunes and managed some unbelievable falsetto harmonies. His voice, along with Adams', were two pieces of a puzzle that fit perfectly together and it's impossible to imagine the band pulling these songs off as well without Casal's contributions.
Graboff's steel guitar accents were always tastefully noticeable and really filled out the sound perfectly. Feinstein's bass was also excellently worked into the tremendous mix and his background vocals, along with the rest of the band's, made it sound like many more were providing their voices to the tunes. Pemberton, simply, was rock solid, as always. This really is one tight and ferocious wall of sound, capable of rocking your socks off with as much ease as they are able to slow everything down to near-silence, before all reconciling again in enrapturing bliss.
This was most evident on the extended, groove-laden jam of "Easy Plateau", which slowed down to a brief a capella section, featuring all five voices, before coming back together with all instruments to perfectly complete the jam.
Other highlights are too many to mention, but include a heart-wrenchingly beautiful cover of Oasis' "Wonderwall", a transcendent "Goodnight Rose" (from Adams' Easy Tiger release), and the dual-personality of "Peaceful Valley" (another personal favorite), which started off as a slowish dirge and ended with a sonic fury before segueing into the the footstomp that is "Beautiful Sorta".
Further emphasizing the fact that this truly is a "band" of which Adams is merely a part was the inclusion of two Neal Casal tunes, "Grand Island" and "Freeway To The Canyon", which showcased Casal's lead vocals and songwriting skills. Adams was relegated to backing vocals and the two songs didn't sound out of place in the set at all.
More fun was had with Ryan relating a story of a burrito that talked to him while he was tripping on tea he made with mushrooms and the spontaneous, minute-long tunes about each individual member of the band, that kicked off when Adams introduced that member to the adoring crowd.
The show wound down with the gloriously atmospheric Tim McGraw cover (kidding!), "When The Stars Go Blue", which then led to my favorite track from Cardinology, the unabashed power pop of "Magick" and then "Oh My Sweet Carolina", which brought it all back down in heartbreaking balladry. The penultimate "Born Into A Light" was beautiful, if not criminally short and the entire evening culminated in an emotionally-charged cover of Alice In Chains' "Down In A Hole".
And with that, it was all over. It was rocking and pensive, fun, exciting, and genuine. It was quite a show. I haven't seen many like it, by any artist.
All in all, the band played for about two and a quarter hours and I would have been thrilled if they played for hours more. Inevitably, with a song catalogue like Adams', there were songs I wanted to hear, but didn't. But that is an indictment more of just how many brilliant tunes he has than it is any disappointment in the setlist, because I had absolutely NONE of that.
In addition to the performance being top-notch, one of the things that enhanced it all the more was Adams' happy demeanor. Sounds corny, because who am I to say this, but we collectively said almost instantly after the show was over, "Man, it was so great to see him like this." When he is on, and he was fucking ON, there are few, if any, bands that can come close to touching the Cardinals as a collective.
I sincerely hope Adams' threats of abandoning music are false. Because as much as I think the Cardinals need Ryan, Ryan also needs them. This incredibly talented group play off each other so well, it would be disheartening if this was their swan song.
We exited the theatre and to our left were the tour buses. I saw Pemberton outside the bus giving out a hug to someone. I did a quick scan for Ryan and ever-so-briefly entertained the idea of waiting around. But I quickly put my head down and walked down the alley to main street, never even looking back at the bus. I wasn't about to let anything happen that would lessen the brilliance of this night one iota. Ryan's still on that mental list of mine and, if he stays there for eternity, so be it.
The setlist, if you are into that sort of thing:
I See Monsters
Let It Ride
A Kiss Before I Go
Come Pick Me Up
Freeway To The Canyon
Shakedown On 9th Street
The Rescue Blues
Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.
When The Stars Go Blue
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Born Into The Light
Down In A Hole
And if you want to hear the show (trust me, you do), head over to here and download or stream it. Many thanks to the taper, vanark, for sharing. It sounds awesome.